“If skipping commercials is illegal, I guess we're all just a nation of outlaws,” said Joe Clayton, DISH CEO. He was speaking at a CES press conference today, defending the AutoHop feature on DISH's Hopper set top boxes and calling for change. Change in the pay TV business model, change in the attitudes of networks and change in industry attitudes towards consumers.
Clayton was positioning himself as a consumer advocate, saying the industry was moving toward “a tipping point” on programming costs. His answer is to push back hard, which “might involve channel take downs from time to time”, something he acknowledges can be “unsettling to consumers” but also “necessary to slow rapidly spiraling content costs.”
DISH is pushing ahead with enabling subscribers to shift viewing in time and space, which won't make networks and content owners universally happy. The DISH Anywhere project is built on top of Sling technology, which will now be built into the Hopper STBs and support viewing on Android and iOS mobile devices as well as laptop and desktop computers.
Support for iPads was showcased. The DISH Transfer app allows subscribers to copy programming directly to an iPad for later viewing offline, via a Sling-enabled STB. A “second screen” app – DISH Explorer – turns an iPad into a combination remote control and on-screen guide, and connects it to social media.
It's a combative stance, but completely in keeping with DISH's history as a independent and sometimes idiosyncratic pay TV platform. The content owners and distributors who sell to and through DISH don't like it, but even they won't dare tell 14 million customers to take a hop.
Travelling through New Zealand and Australia with a smart phone or iPad is painless and relatively inexpensive for a traveller. Three national mobile networks – Telstra, Optus and Vodafone – cover Australia. Optus also markets service under the Virgin Mobile brand. In New Zealand, it’s Telecom NZ and Vodafone, with newcomer 2degrees building out its network.
My assessment of actual coverage is subjective. I used Vodafone in both countries, and Telstra in Australia. Vodafone NZ and Telstra do a very good job of covering the areas I visited: long swathes of both North and South Islands in New Zealand, and Melbourne, Adelaide and the countryside in between in Australia. Vodafone Australia’s coverage is less comprehensive. I occasionally checked on Optus’ and Telecom NZ’s availability, and could not see any significant difference between their coverage and that of Telstra and Vodafone NZ, respectively.
All four companies market their services through their own stores and resellers, and do a good job of reaching out to travellers with iPads and unlocked GSM/3G phones. I have a long standing pre-paid account with Vodafone NZ that lets me use its Australian sister network on the same terms. Just topping up once a year keeps my phone number active.
Getting a microsim for my iPad from Telstra took longer than it should have – I spent about 45 minutes in a Melbourne store going through the bureaucratic steps necessary for setting up an account, and the other three carriers appear to have similar procedures. It’s a far cry from Vodafone’s UK operation. Travellers there can pop a credit card into an airport vending machine and, for £10, get a microsim and 250 MB of data.
Costs are very reasonable. In Australia, Telstra, Vodafone and Optus all offered a microsim with 3 GB of data for A$30. Published prices are different but, judging from discussions with store staff, all three aggressively meet or beat each other’s special deals on the street. There are a few Virgin Mobile brand stores as well, and they’re aiming at more even more cost conscious buyers: a A$5 microsim comes with 300 MB of data. Avoid a couple of hotel or WiFi hotspot day use charges and it’s paid for itself. In New Zealand, microsim costs range between NZ$20 to NZ$50 for up to 3 GB of data.
New Zealand and Australia have always bee very pleasant places to do business. Ubiquitous, fast and cheap mobile broadband coverage makes it very easy, too.
Jonney rocks it like SteveAll he needed was the black turtleneck. OK, Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field would have helped too.
ASUS chairman Jonney Shih borrowed the Apple chairman’s presentation style, falling only a little short on the mojo. Shih introduced four different implementations of the new eee Pad family of touchscreen tablets.
First up was the Eee Pad MeMo, a 7-inch tablet device that looks a lot like a big iPod Touch and runs Android on a Snapdragon processor. Two of the other new devices are also Android-based, running an Nvidia Tegra 2 CPU/GPU combo chip set and sporting a 10-inch touchscreen.
The Eee Pad Transformer is a tablet computer with an integrated docking station that looks like a conventional laptop when it’s all snapped together. The docking station provides a keyboard, extra power and familiar ergonomics. The Eee Pad Slider does a similar trick with a slide-out keyboard. Slate does Windows
The powerhouse new product, and the first one to market, is the 12-inch Eee Pad Slate, which runs Windows Home 7 on a more a traditional Intel Core i5 CPU. The product demo emphasized the eee Slate’s raw computing power. It appears to be a fully functional PC with a iPad-like form factor, albeit bigger.
The Eee Pad family is not vapor ware. The products were demonstrated live on stage, and Shih gave specifics about market launch dates and price points:
Eee Pad Slate, available January, US$999 to $1,099.
Eee Pad Transformer, available April, US$399 to $699
Eee Pad Slider, available May, US$499 to $799
Eee Pad Memo, available June, US$499 to $699
Shih continually benchmarked the new products against the iPad and its iOS cousins. And he pushed the idea that ASUS is Apple’s equal when it comes to innovation, a claim that leaned heavily on the hazy concept products and services he threw out at the end.
He talked about personal cloud computing devices, something called Waveface seamless mobility, DIY 2.0 which is supposed to be the new Web 2.0, and IRIS, which stands for “inspirational research for immersive space.” People love sliders
Waveface and DIY 2.0 are still half-formed concepts, as Shih pointed out, while IRIS is the catch-all for futuristic concept products. Shih was clearly trying to show that he and ASUS have Apple-like vision, and compared to run-of-the-mill computer makers they do. But they also need to remember that Apple’s mystique rests on the company’s practice of only taking about real, shippable products.
Reality distortion field or not, when Jobs introduces a truly new product it comes with a high degree of confidence that Apple will shortly be selling it. Shih still has to deliver on his conceptual promises.
MSI, on the other hand, was taking on Intel’s “Only the Paranoid Survive” persona. We had to sign a news embargo agreement to enter, only to be told ten minutes later that the embargo has been lifted. Which turned out to be OK with Intel because MSI’s US head sales guy, Andy Tung, said they weren’t going to talk about interesting products like tablets until Thursday. Because of Intel.
MSI’s sexy thingIntel’s Dan Snyder spoke briefly about the embargoed Sandy Bridge chip, and did say that it’ll be great for transcoding video to iPhones. Unfortunately, MSI doesn’t make the iPhone.
MSI talked about three conventional computer lines: the G series for gaming and high performance audio and video, the F series for everyday business and the C series for long battery life and, presumably, mobility.
ASUS easily won the Tuesday pre-Press Day derby at CES. They recognize that success in the consumer electronics business is not about clock speed or motherboards, but about the customer experience. Apple transformed itself from a computer company into a premium consumer brand. ASUS isn’t there yet, but they know which road they need to take.
Long-odds prediction for the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show: the mobile phone will be the set top box. Expect a prototype that tethers a large screen display to a media-rich smart phone. You walk in the room and your stuff appears on the screen. You will only have one channel and it will be whatever you want to watch, where ever you happen to be.
If someone doesn’t roll it out here in Las Vegas this week, you’ll see it shortly from Apple (which is too hip to hang at CES these days) or at a mobile phone event in someplace like Barcelona or Orlando or San Diego, at the latest.
CES starts rolling with press conferences, briefings and product previews. Tuesday is actually pre-Press day – the big boys strut their stuff on Wednesday – but it’s turning into the most interesting day of the show. ASUS began holding its press event on Tuesday a couple of years ago, and MSI joined in. CES Unveiled, which is the official small company press group-grope, also happens Tuesday. By the end of the day, it’ll be pretty clear what the high tech buzz will be for the coming week.
ASUS seems to be trying to position itself as another Apple, talking more about design than technology. It’s not quite in Apple’s league yet, but fresh designs do set it apart from the mainline CE companies. Even Sony looks grey-suit by comparison. MSI seems to be following ASUS’s lead, promising a media extravaganza.
My bet is that ASUS will introduce nicely designed computers and an iPad knock-off that misses on functionality but comes in a couple hundred bucks under Apple. It will then immediately suck the air out of its real product announcements by hyping photoshopped pictures of concept designs that look rad but will never make it to the prototype stage, let alone a production line. MSI will then throw a big party, show off some solid but not bleeding edge products and wonder why ASUS gets better coverage.
More predictions for the coming days…
Everyone will promise an iPad clone of one kind or another. None will come close to the integrated elegance of Apple’s product, but buried deep underneath the me-too crowd will be one or two innovations from unknown players with star potential.
At least one company will set itself up for iPad-like success or PlasticLogic-like embarrassment by showing a tablet that combines a next-gen e-reader’s thin, light form factor and low power consumption with a touch-screen and basic productivity apps.
Cisco will once again offer the show’s most autistic press non-conference and walk away patting itself on its corporate back.
The big, old school CE players will showcase the usual upgrades of existing product lines, but won’t have anything truly new to offer.
The wild card will be the CE company that finally figures out a usable user interface for IPTV. Thomson’s Joe Clayton was right fifteen years ago when he called video navigation the coming killer app of the 21st Century. We’re still waiting.
Look for bigger, brighter displays and fewer boxes. All the electronics for everything worth shipping to a store can pretty much fit onto a couple of circuit boards and into the case of any consumer-grade display.
Expect less emphasis on company app stores and more on turn-it-on-and-use-it functionality. Last year, CE companies flogged dozens of partnerships with high profile consumer brands. Not because consumers wanted it, but because they couldn’t think of anything else to say. This year they’ll have a better idea of the customer experience they’re actually trying to sell.
Last year, the cool new thing was bleeding edge input devices that responded to waving fingers and heavy breathing. Good stuff and there will be more of it this year, in productized form.
We’ll know soon enough. The fun is about to begin.